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Migrants Keep Eating Their Native Cuisine, Even If It Means They Starve

In strange lands, people crave home's comfort cuisine—even if they can't afford it.

Migrants Keep Eating Their Native Cuisine, Even If It Means They Starve

Photo: Flickr user Forest and Kim Starr

When people move to a new region or country, they take their cuisine with them. If this wasn’t the case, New York wouldn’t have pizza and Birmingham in the U.K. wouldn’t have some of the best curry in the world. But if migrant workers stick to their native cuisine then they can end up poorer, or even malnourished, paying for expensive imported foods.

A new paper from MIT professor David Atkin looks at this problem, finding that migrants in India tend to pay more for their home region’s cuisine and that they consume relatively fewer calories per rupee of money that they spend on food.

At the heart of the study is what Atkin calls a "caloric tax," which is the drop in calories in a migrant’s diet due to higher-priced ingredients. In the worst cases, where a husband and wife have migrated together, for instance, caloric tax can be as high as 7.2%. If someone is already on the borderline of malnourishment, this is enough to send them over the edge.

Flickr user Quinn Dombrowski

The study is based on figures from the Indian National Sample Surveys of 1983 and 1987-88. These tally the purchases of 169 food groups by 125,000 households. " This happens to be a good time period to study, thanks to very bad conditions, diet-wise. "Childhood malnutrition rates were above 50%, and 64% of households consumed fewer calories than the nutritional adequacy requirements used to determine India’s poverty line," writes Atkin.

One interesting cause is the recipes themselves. You might be thinking in terms of exotic imports. Someone from the U.S., living in the U.K., might buy expensive imported Kraft Mac & Cheese because it reminds them of home. That’s not what we’re talking about here.

For instance, rice and wheat are available in most areas, and account for 66% of all calories eaten during the sample period. But the prices of each vary between regions. Sometimes rice is more expensive, sometimes wheat. Dishes from areas with cheaper rice use more of it. When people move to a region where rice is relatively expensive, they will still use their familiar recipe, increasing the price of even a basic dish. If they were to adapt to local foods, then they would find the new cuisine better designed to take advantage of cheaper local ingredients.

These food preferences can have even more radical effects. Atkin concludes his paper with an example from Africa, where "white maize is greatly preferred to yellow maize" in much of the continent. However, food aid programs almost always ship in imported yellow maize. "Programs that provide cheap yellow corn to hungry communities," writes Atkin, "or try to reduce vitamin A deficiency through wider availability of yellow maize are less effective in contexts where there are cultural preferences for white maize."

There aren’t many answers here. In terms of giving food aid, the foods brought should be targeted to the preferences of the people most vulnerable to malnutrition, or food vouchers can be used to offer them choice. But migrant workers outside of the places served by aid are often on their own.

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